Get Garcia: Secret-Shopper Scam Lands Victim in Jail
Moses Pennell, 22, took on what he thought was a secret-shopper job to help his mother pay for the expenses at the Anaheim home they share. Pennell received a check for nearly $2,000 to cover his shopping costs. When he tried to cash the phony check, authorities were called and Pennell spend the night in jail facing felony fraud charges. Ana Garcia reports for the NBC4 News at 11 p.m. on June 15, 2012.
Top brass at the Penny Saver, the print and online collections of classified ads that has been around for 50 years, say they have gotten rid of two ads because of a recent NBC4 Get Garcia segment and have changed their process for reviewing customer complaints.
It all started with the story of Moses Pennell last June, the young man who saw an ad to be a secret shopper in the Penny Saver.
He thought it looked legitimate and so did his mom. “I had a daughter-in-law who had done it years ago and she loved it,” Kelly Horn told NBC4.
Moses responded to the ad, then he got a check in the mail for $1800 and a letter with detailed instructions, telling him to deposit the check and use the money to shop at big name stores like Walmart and Best Buy, and report back on his customer experience.
Moses went to a nearby Walmart to cash the check. That’s when everything started to go wrong.
“He called me that night and told me, ‘mom, I’ve been arrested’”. It turns out the cashier at Walmart suspected the check was fake and called police.
Moses’ arrest foiled the scammer’s plot, which was supposed to work like this: the would-be secret shopper unknowingly deposits a bad check.
By law, the bank must clear it within days, but it can take weeks to discover the check is bogus. By then, the secret shopper has spent the money for the shopping assignment, which includes wiring the bulk of the money through Western Union, allegedly to evaluate its service.
When the check finally bounces, the shopper is out both the money spent on the purchases and the money wired through Western Union, which actually was wired to the scammers.
Bob Falk is head of sales and marketing for Penny Saver USA, headquartered in Sacramento. He says his employees in southern California saw the Get Garcia segment and brought it to his attention.
“My first reaction was one of denial,” Falk said. Nonetheless, he says he started questioning the advertiser about the ad, questions the advertiser apparently did not like.
"At that point, they said we aren’t going to advertise anymore,” Falk said. “It does pain us to lose that revenue, but we have a responsibility to our readers and we do feel better not having it in there.”
Falk says they yanked a similar ad for fear it, too, was a scam. He says that while they don’t have the manpower to screen the more than a million ads placed in the Penny Saver each year, they do investigate consumer complaints. Since the Get Garcia story, he says he personally looks into the complaints that appear to be the most egregious.
As for Moses Pennell, his story had a happy ending. After a few nerve wracking weeks, the District Attorney decided to not file charges.
There are legitimate secret shopper jobs. You can get tips tips on how to know if an advertisement for such a position is for real from the Federal Trade Commission.